• Daniel Vollaro

Comrade Shovel

Suburban life is a parade of absurdities

Take for example the shovel, a common enough American possession, appropriate for any number of household tasks—gardening, picking up lawn apples, digging a proper grave for Pete the hermit crab. Very useful. I live in a small neighborhood – one short street with a cul-de-sac – 17 houses in all. I could probably throw a rock and hit each of my neighbors' houses from my driveway. Each of these houses no doubt has a shovel, some more than one. If I collected these shovels and counted them, I wouldn’t be surprised to find 30 to 40 shovels for the entire neighborhood, all of these to dig holes for a few tomato plants and shovel dog crap in an area that can be traversed on foot in less than two minutes.

This bounty of shovels is not practical (though advertisers of shovels and purveyors of what now passes for “common sense” in America might disagree). We will not be more productive gardeners because we own so many shovels among us, and since we do not primarily feed ourselves from our gardens, our shovels cannot rightly be described as essential household items. We will probably not use our shovels to undertake major digging operations on our own property; we tend to hire people to do that kind of work in this neighborhood. Some of these shovels have likely never been used. Others are very lightly used. Given the fact that our excess of shovels far outstrips our need for them, a sensible solution might be to limit ourselves to one shovel per household, or to not own one at all—rent a shovel when you need one, or borrow a neighbor’s shovel. But in this current iteration of America, common sense dictates that if you can imagine the need for a thing in the future, the best course of action is to buy it and store it in your house. Of course, common sense is always more common than sensible.

This hoarding of mostly untouched and lightly used shovels only makes sense in a society where the selling of shovels to people who may or may not need them is the engine driving the entire economy. And this is, in fact, the state of the American economy, which is only considered “healthy” or “strong” if it is manufacturing, marketing, and selling shovels (and every other damn thing) to every homeowner--at least one per household--but preferably more, so that shovel manufacturers can make and sell a variety of shovels, in different sizes, shapes, and colors, and for different purposes.

On those handful of occasions during the year when I drag my own shovel from the garage (I have two but only use the longer one), it is usually to perform some backbreaking task in the rock-littered corner garden at the edge of my stone patio where I am always trying to grow peppers and herbs. In these sweaty moments, my mind wanders to a communist utopia in which there exists a community shed—a simple unadorned structure that could be purchased from Costco and then filled with the tools that we all need in the neighborhood. The shed would house shovels of course—I estimate five to be the number that we all would need—along with rakes, hoes, edgers, clippers, etc. (I would have to spend more time creating a detailed list of items to provision this imaginary shed, of course, but you get the point). When you think about it, a community toolshed makes just as much sense as a community pool, but the pool, obviously, is a lot more fun in the summer.

* * *

My primary shovel is an Ames, manufactured by a company that has been making shovels in America since 1774. Presumably Ames shovels were used to build railroads and dams and canals and building foundations and thousands of other worthy projects in North America over the past two centuries. With a wooden handle and a tempered steel blade, it is a simple, beautifully designed tool. This shovel is useful—there is no questioning its value and purpose, unlike perhaps a hundred other consumer goods in my house I could name off the top of my head (That’s right, I’m looking at you Mrs. Electric Foot Massager).

So what is the problem?

With the shovel, nothing. I am fond of shovels in general and especially fond of this one. If I did not think more deeply than this, there would be nothing more to write. But I cannot leave well enough alone and my mind invariably drills down into the extractionist activity required to produce my two shovels—the hardwood trees that were cut down to make the handles, the iron ore and coal that was dug out of the ground to make the steel, the carbon that was injected into the atmosphere in the manufacturing process, the plastic handle covers. I also think about the economies of scale that make all of this violent extraction of “natural resources” and carboniferous manufacturing activity invisible and blithely dismissible as inconsequential to most of us, when in fact---added up across the wide expanse of mostly untouched and lightly used shovels added to the thousands of other likely unnecessary consumer goods in each of our homes---humanity now is facing a global crisis of existential proportions.

Maybe it’s not fair of me to pick on the shovel. After all, shovels posses an innate quality of utility, which is a compliment I cannot pay to most of the plastic crap in my house that was purchased on a whim or for a quick thrill and then thrown into an overstuffed closet with the other plastic crap (I’m looking at you Mr. Remote-control BB8 Droid, a birthday present for my daughter who played with you once and then never looked at you again). The thingness of a shovel cannot be separated from the necessity for it. I bought the shovel to get things done. What could be more purposeful than this?

But even shovels are subject to the bloat of consumer capitalism, which employs all manner of trickery to convince people that they need things that in fact they do not need. For instance, I have a second shovel, a shorter one one with a D-shaped handle that I bought thinking I would use it to dig smaller holes in my garden. I have never used this shovel and it is currently rusting in my garage. Turns out, a simple hand trowel is sufficient for digging the smaller holes.

By the way, I have two hand trowels as well, one with a blade that is slightly wider than the other. I have no recollection of buying the second one, but it must have been me.